BMCR 1994.07.04

The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana

, The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana: Two Contemporary Accounts of the Final Years of the Roman Empire. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: New York, NY: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1993. xiv, 270 pages. ISBN 0198147872.

Hydatius wrote in an obscure town in northwestern Spain in the fifth century AD, and his chronicle suffers from his extreme isolation. Nevertheless it is one of very few historical sources surviving from this crucial period. Burgess’ new edition of Hydatius should therefore be received very gratefully by anyone concerned with the collapse of the Roman Empire.

A new edition of Hydatius is certainly long overdue, as until now we have had to rely on Mommsen’s 1894 text. As Burgess says, Mommsen’s text is very hard to use partly because of his complex system of brackets and quotes, and partly because Mommsen does not indicate interpolations clearly. In 1974, Alain Tranoy published a text with a French translation for Sources chretiennes, but his text is based almost entirely on Mommsen. In addition, Tranoy’s text suffers from his following Courtois’ theory that Hydatius’ manuscript was extensively interpolated and corrupt; Burgess shows that this is not the case.[1] A decade later a text and Spanish translation were published by Julio Campos, but again without a fresh look at the manuscripts (Campos for some reason does not appear in Burgess’s bibliography; I hope this is an oversight rather than a deliberate slight).[2]

Burgess is perhaps a little too hard on Tranoy and Campos, whose main concern seems to have been with the translation, but clearly Burgess’s text is to be preferred since Burgess has examined all the manuscripts. This has enabled him to show that all surviving manuscripts are descended from one now located in Berlin and therefore known (rather confusingly for this review) as Burgess finds only two places where other mss. can emend Burgess. Fortunately, the Berlin manuscript is, according to Burgess, not nearly as corrupt as Courtois suggested. The most important problem is that several pages were missing or illegible in some ancestor of Burgess, leaving extensive lacunae in our text. In addition, the chronology has gotten badly confused.

The chronology of Hydatius is complex, and in addition it has been badly corrupted. It is therefore a considerable accomplishment that Burgess steers us through it successfully, giving dates in modern terms in the margins of the translation and providing an extensive commentary on dating systems (though his explanation of the Spanish aeras could be clearer). While Courtois tried to explain all inconsistencies as interpolations or copying errors, Burgess notes that “Hydatius could make errors, could get confused, and sometimes had inaccurate or incomplete information” (31). Hydatius also was working with a number of different and mutually inconsistent systems, and despite the obvious importance of calculating the date of the Second Coming he may not have attached the same importance we do to dating historical events.

Burgess’s presentation of the text follows B, except that Burgess starts a new paragraph for each regnal year to make the text easier to follow. Unfortunately, he abandons Mommsen’s numbering system, because he has shifted a number of sections around. However, he does supply these numbers in the text, so it is easy to find the right passage even with only a reference to Mommsen.

Burgess’s translation of Hydatius is, if anything, a still more important contribution than his text. It is the first translation into English and the most accurate translation in any modern language. It will now be possible for undergraduates and other non-specialists to use Hydatius, which should contribute a good deal to general knowledge of the fifth century. Even those with good Latin will benefit from the translation, since Hydatius’ Latin can be very difficult for those used to Augustan prose.

This translation is in general faithful to the text and reasonably comprehensible, considering the tortured nature of Hydatius’ own prose. A commendable effort has been made to translate often repeated phrases such as elatus inpie (“overweening impiety”) in the same way every time, so that the reader gets a sense of the formulaic nature of the chronicle. Burgess has made a number of interpolations of his own in order to clarify obscurities in the text, but these are clearly marked. Some interpolations seem unnecessary (e.g. of the account on p. 75), but most of them are badly needed. All titles and names of festivals have been left in Latin (in italics) without comment. This seems rather hard on undergraduates, particularly with complex titles such as dux utriusque militia (91) or vir inlustris (99). On the same page Burgess does inexplicably translate “the Patrician,” whereas elsewhere it is always patricius.

The tone is by and large fairly neutral, which seems appropriate to a chronicle. Here and there there are archaisms (we have already seen “overweening impiety”), and now and then there is a modernism which jars a bit. It seems unnecessary, for instance, to translate gesta as “transcripts” rather than “acts” (79), or invidia perurgente as “jealous lobbying” (97). On the whole, however, the translation is quite readable.

Some small quibbles: Burgess suggests in his introduction that Hydatius picked up his Greek from merchants in Spain, but it seems more likely to me that he acquired his very limited Greek as a boy in Jerusalem. In any case it does not seem necessary to use German in the translation, as Burgess has, to represent Greek words in the original. Why not just use Greek? Or italics? Why German particularly, even among the modern languages?

The translation of anything having to do with gender relations requires special attention these days, so I will comment on two instances: Burgess translates Constantius Placidiam accepit uxorem as “Constantius took Placidia as his wife,” which seems somewhat misleading; accepit can also mean “received,” “welcomed,” or “accepted,” and none of these has the same connotation of women as property (84-5). Indeed, the phrase accepta in coniugium Theodori regis filia is translated “by marrying the daughter of King Theodoric,” which is considerably less possessive (94-5).

More importantly, Burgess attaches considerable importance to Hydatius’ desire to save his soul given the impending end of the world, but it is not clear to me from the internal evidence that this was Hydatius’ main preoccupation, and Burgess’s only other reference is to his own dissertation. Hydatius seems to me too much a man of the world for this attitude. For instance, Burgess translates Haec iam quidem inserta, sed posteris in temporibus quibus offenderint reliquimus consummanda as “Such then are the contents of the present volume, but I have left it to my successors to include an account of the Last Days, at that time at which they encounter them” (75). “Last Days” here seems both a little more than is called for, and a little less.

These criticisms, however, are not meant to detract from the worthiness of the whole. This is clearly a significant contribution to research on Late Antiquity. The supporting material is clearly and explicitly laid out. Chronological tables are clear considering the complicated subject. An appendix discusses problems of ancient orthography and justifies the choices Burgess has made. His concordance of spelling variants will be very useful to anyone tracing pronunciation and orthographic shifts in Late Antiquity. Finally in a fourth appendix Burgess lays out the complete texts of the other lesser manuscripts of Hydatius, which allows the reader to cross-check if he or she has any doubts. It would be nice to see a geographical appendix where the numerous rivers and towns could be given their modern names, or to have the names given in the text of the translation itself. But there are already so many appendices and explanations that it would be invidious to complain.

The second half of the book is devoted to the text of the so-called Consularia Constantinopolitana. The misnamed Consularia is, as Burgess says, “a complex document of differing dates and hands” (175). It is basically a list of the names of Roman consuls from 509 BC to AD 468 with numerous historical notes inserted. Burgess rightly, I think, condemns Brian Croke’s argument that these consularia are based on public records which were posted in the imperial capitals for public use. Indeed, the negative evidence for this theory is deafening, and the many inconsistencies both within and between such documents make it clear that they are based on private initiative alone.[3]

Furthermore, Burgess shows that there is also only one complete manuscript of the Consularia, and that is the same Berlin manuscript as Hydatius above, Phillipps 1829 of the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek. The text he presents is based almost entirely on this manuscript. Burgess nevertheless argues that despite their appearance in the same manuscript the Consularia was not written by Hydatius, as has often been suggested. Instead, he proposes that Hydatius used another version of this document in composing his history. Prosper and Hydatius “must have been sharing a common source which was a version of the Consularia but not the surviving version” (201). Subsequently an owner of a copy of Hydatius and a copy of the Consularia saw the similarities and had them copied into the same ‘Burgess Croke, “City Chronicles of Late Antiquity,” in Graeme Clarke with Brian Croke, Raoul Mortley, and Alanna Emmett Nobbs (eds.), History and Historians in Late Antiquity (Sydney 1990), 1-12 codex, which is the ancestor of the Berlin manuscript. This seems convincing, especially as it explains the many inconsistencies between the two documents.

The text of the Consularia is presented clearly and with appropriate brevity. Burgess adds the appropriate BC/AD years, which is helpful, but he does not attempt to correct the orthography (as would hardly be possible given the number of hands involved) and corrupted names in most cases. It would help if Burgess clarified what period of the text he was aiming for. This is a text which changed constantly over time, and which cannot claim one author whose intentions could be reconstructed. Any presentation of it will necessarily freeze it in time. Burgess seems, though he does not say so, to have been aiming for the time when Hydatius’ chronicle and the Consularia were attached to each other, that is around 630 AD.

Burgess is correct in saying that a translation of the Consularia would be superfluous, since it is for the most part only a list of names with occasional terse and simply put historical commentary. Most people with enough interest in the subject to want to read the text will have the very elementary Latin needed to understand it.

Roman Spain has been neglected by English-speaking scholars for some time, due partly to modern and partly to ancient political factors. But much excellent work is being done by Spanish historians and archaeologists. There is a wealth of material available from this province, and many welcoming Spanish colleagues with whom to study it. I hope this new edition and translation will propel us in this direction.



[1] A. Tranoy, Hydace: Chronique (2 vols., Sources Chretiennes, 218-19; Paris 1974); C. Courtois, “Auteurs et scribes: Remarques sur la Chronique d’Hydace,” Byzantion 21 (1951), 23-54.

[2] J. Campos, Idacio, obispo de Chaves: su Clironicon (Salamanca 1984).

[3] Burgess Croke, “City Chronicles of Late Antiquity,” in Graeme Clarke with Brian Croke, Raoul Mortley, and Alanna Emmett Nobbs (eds.), History and Historians in Late Antiquity. (Sydney 1990), 1-2.